Christine Cunningham

The truth about Terra Nullius and why First Nations people say Tudge is wrong to say we need optimism

Australia’s federal Minister for Education, Alan Tudge, will not endorse the  draft national curriculum for secondary teachers of Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS) because  the changes are “overly negative”and could teach kids a hatred of their Country” (ABC 2021).  

But from a First Nations perspective, the time has come to speak the truth about what has happened since the invasion of the sovereign lands and waterways, the act of Terra Nullius and the legacy of this mindset. 

The draft national curriculum was publicly released for comments in early 2021. It revealed substantial changes to the Year 7-10 History curriculum and is to be finalised and given to all state Education Ministers for their consideration and endorsement by the end of this year. 

Since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 2012, many secondary teachers of HASS have lamented the lack of Australian History taught in Years 7-10. Australian History which was previously covered in Year 8 was moved and watered-down into the primary school curriculum, leaving secondary HASS to cover a very broad scope without much Australian and Indigenous History until Year 10. 

The new draft History curriculum proposes the inclusion of more Australian focused content earlier; including pre-colonisation First Nation histories in Year 7 and more detailed consideration of Australians’ roles in both WWI and WWII in Years 9 and 10 respectively. Year 10 will still include the civil rights History of Australian and Indigenous peoples – the only Australian and Indigenous focuses to date.

Many of these inclusions will be welcomed and celebrated by Australian HASS teachers, but our purpose here is not to defend the draft curriculum but to question the minister. 

Perhaps Minister Tudge is what Noongars call ‘dwokabert’ (deaf ears)?

Minister Tudge argues that contestability should not feature prominently as a historical concept in our curriculum, but that we “must give an optimistic view of our country.” Do these values represent, “the vast majority of Australian people?” Do we not have a responsibility to teach about the pluralist backgrounds and perspectives of our diverse society? Isn’t our role to equip secondary school students with critical thinking skills to make choices, based on well-informed and widely-considered ideas and beliefs?  And most importantly, surely Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples will remain rhetorical unless we teach a true and accurate account of Australian history in order to develop future generations of Australians who are well-informed about Australia’s rich, diverse and unsettled history?

The goals for education in Australia were formally confirmed again in the Alice Springs (Mpartwe) Declaration in 2019. They included the creation of “active and informed citizens.” Minister Tudge’s agenda, to propagate patriotism and blindly optimistic views about Australia, are accompanied by his argument that History “should be about teaching accuracy” rather than contestability. It is ironic that contestability and debate is one of the key pillars of the liberal democracy that the Minister is arguing should be appreciated, while he is, at the same time, rejecting that History should be contested.

This is what is most concerning about Minister Tudge’s rhetoric – he is poisoning the curriculum well by insisting on the unquestioning acceptance of an incorrect, or at least out-dated, version of Australian History. To come out in opposition now to curriculum change, after his government commissioned Marcia Langton A.O. to integrate and thus infuse Indigenous knowledges into curriculum material just last year, is disrespectful and ‘winyarn’ (sorrowful).

Returning to the Howard Era arguments for “accuracy” and teaching “what happened” as fact in History is contrary to the Australian educational goals of developing critical and creative thinkers. If we want a better way forward then we need to look no further than the Australian Coat of Arms with its ‘waitj’ (emu) and ‘yonga’ (kangaroo) standard bearers. Both animals cannot walk backwards and they symbolise forward thinking and national progress.

Australian students should be challenged to understand that there are different perspectives of our National history, it is not a single story.  Critical thinkers, in History, ask questions about whose stories are being told, what perspectives are being represented, and whose versions of History are we reading? We do not accept just “his story,” but we look for “her” stories, and “their” stories. It is essential to the process of reconciliation to know the true histories of Australia as it is a vital element in providing systemic change in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples which holds the power to Heal Country on both sides of history.

 From left to right:

Dr Olivia Johnston  is a qualified HASS secondary teacher and now an Edith Cowan University lecturer who is upskilling and mentoring the next generation of HASS teachers in Western Australia.

Dr Libby Jackson-Barrett is a Noongar teacher, scholar and researcher. Her PhD thesis offers an accessible insight into Indigenous Theories of Knowledge and Yarning Circles with 3 cups of Tea patience.

Dr Christine Cunningham is an Educational Leadership academic. She admires her early career co-authors very much and is the Higher Degrees Coordinator at Edith Cowan University’s School of Education. 

Many thanks to Peter Broelman who allowed the use of his cartoon which is the main image for this story, as selected by the authors

Messages from teachers at the coalface as COVID-19 changes everything

I am a university teacher and researcher who studies the art and science of good school leadership. Most of my students are mature age, full-time teachers and deputy principals from around Australia who want to become principals, and who believe studying my units will help them with that goal. (And it often does.)

Part of my job requires me to fly to China and teach Chinese principals about school leadership in a week of intensive face to face teaching with follow up online teaching. My last trip to China was in early December 2019. My Chinese school principal students’ second assignment was due on 10 th January 2020. I remember that due date well – because that was the day they went into lockdown in their area. They are still in lock down today.

Fast forward to this week, and the COVID-19 tsunami has crashed wave after wave of destruction onto Australia’s shores. I’ve had four months to prepare for the disruption I will face as an educator in Australia (and I did). But now watching my students’ shock and panic (remember they are all full-time teachers and many are already school leaders) has been heart-wrenching and inspiring too.

I have been receiving many emails from my students telling me of their school’s situation and how they are handling the urgent transition to online learning and a very different method of teaching.  I have been offering them assignment extensions; theoretical advice; and stern lectures about putting themselves first and trying not to be all things to all people in the present, crazy situation.

I am sharing excerpts from some of those emails with you today. They speak for themselves. (I have removed specific details, names, and compliments passed my way). Each except is from a different teacher.

Thank you so much for your support. After tonight’s PM address I am feeling more and more distressed and unsupported from our government. At present we are now expected to teach our students online as well as face to face which has made teaching almost impossible. My Principal is trying her best but we have no time to create resources and learn technology to assist our students. Add that with the lack of hand sanitiser (we ordered it weeks ago and it still hasn’t arrived) and the impossible task of social distancing any kids from kindy to year 12 and we are just scared, so so scared.

I work in a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory and with ongoing to travel restrictions and other measures that have been put it place over the last couple of days, it has been difficult for myself to get my assignment completed as we have had to urgently go and complete 800km round trip for food. Also, we have now been notified this morning that we have to plan and prepare work for the possible closure of the schools, this is extra work outside of the normal school hours, and we have been instructed to complete this before close of school tomorrow.

We have delivered one week of teaching via distance learning, which has consisted of the creation of online lessons. It has been a real challenge to create music lessons for primary students while keeping them actively engaged in music-making and not just completing worksheets. It has given me a new appreciation for creating varied and authentic online learning experiences.

The constantly changing situation of COVID-19 is challenging us all. I support early childhood teachers across [a large region]. I am getting phone calls and emails all day and into the night because of the high level of uncertainty. The teachers I support are worried for their finances, worried for their jobs, worried for their families, worried for their own health and worried for their students.

Last week, our college conducted a house to house survey of our [hundreds of] students who come from five indigenous communities and less than 10% have access to a computer or iphone.  Two of our communities have no access at all due to finance and no adsl/mobile access.   

As an administrator in a Secondary school the pandemic, has added extra workload at what is an already busy time of year. Workload pressures come not only in the form of the day to day practices but being compassionate with parents/students and teachers and spending time with them to alleviate their fears and anxiety.  I, and my wife (who is immune compromised and works in [another education  sector]), would love to be able to work from home, but we are told that schools need to remain open, and therefore are facing the reality of keeping our own children at home unsupervised to minimise the risk of my wife contracting the virus.

So sorry for the delay, you are correct in that school has been very busy, the staff have done double planning for two weeks and now crash courses on how to be completely online. 

We are still running the school with no clear end date than our original one for our Easter break. We are running on skeleton staffing so I am still required on-site at least one day a week. I feel blessed to still have employment but worry extensively about my health and young family if I get sick. 

And finally, an extract from a message sent to me by administration staff from my child’s high school:

As far as a wish-list goes for our students, our priority is for our Year 12 students to assist them complete their year, achieving their best results, despite the disruptions we are all facing. Anything that goes to the school or students will need to be a donation as they won’t be covered by insurance, nor can we guarantee return from the students homes.

We are currently looking to source 4G dongles (to assist with Connect downloads, Education Perfect etc…) for those students who do not have internet access in their homes, USB’s so students can save documents and can be printed for submission and laptops / tablets / ipads (there are a few who rely on alternative family members or school based resources) to complete work. Anything you can do to assist would be received gratefully by our students

Dr Christine Cunningham is a senior lecturer and teaching-researcher working in the School of Education at Edith Cowan University. Her current role is Higher Degree by Research Coordinator while she still teaches Postgraduate Studies in Educational Leadership. Christine conducts and supervises a diverse range of research in school leadership, curriculum and international education. Christine is on Twitter @DrCCunningham